Statue to Tony Blair honours “Tonibler” cult in Kosovo

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 5:23 AM

By Fatos Bytyci

FERIZAJ, Kosovo (Reuters) – As sculptor Agon Qosa put some of the finishing touches to a statue of Tony Blair, he thought about what the former British prime minister had done for Kosovo a quarter of a century ago.

Qosa and other ethnic Albanians in Kosovo idolise Blair for his leadership role during a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that halted Serb forces’ advances and ultimately helped the small Balkan nation win independence.

Twenty-five years on, Qosa is completing a life-size clay statue of Blair that will be cast in bronze and placed on Blair boulevard in the eastern town of Ferizaj on June 12, which marks the end of the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

“I decided to have him in our town, in our Kosovo, to arrive happy and joyful,” Qosa said as he worked on the statue depicting Blair smiling in a suit, one arm raised in a wave.

More than 13,000 people, mainly local Albanians, were killed in the 1998-99 war. Blair, who was Britain’s prime minister from 1997 to 2007, backed the NATO bombing of Serbia to force it to withdraw from Kosovo.

Many supporters later became disillusioned with Blair over Britain’s subsequent role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but many people in Kosovo share Qosa’s enthusiasm.

According to the national statistics office, more than 10 people are named Tonibler, Toni or Bler – the spellings altered to fit local pronunciations.

Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president at the time of the NATO bombing campaign, also has a statue in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

When Tonibler Gashi was born two years after the war, his father had no doubt about naming his first son after Blair. Gashi, now 22, was nine when he meet the real Blair in Pristina.

“It was like meeting pretty much a prophet for our people…he shook my hand and I felt great,” he said.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Edward McAllister and Timothy Heritage)